19 April 2021

Sangam (1964)

Directed by: Raj Kapoor
Music: Shankar-Jaikishan
Lyrics: Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri
Starring: Raj Kapoor, Vyjayanthimala,
Rajendra Kumar, Hari Shivdasani,
Achla Sachdev, Lalita Pawar, Iftekhar

I had never quite liked Sangam. I hated Raj Kapoor's character, I hated the (by then) trope of 'guys sacrificing for one another and hang what the girl wants' bromances in Hindi films, and I'd never liked Rajendra Kumar. So, when the Criterion Channel had a Raj Kapoor retrospective, I watched Awara and Shree 420 at once but dithered for over a month before settling down to re-watch Sangam. Read on to see if I changed my mind.

Sangam opens with Radha, Sundar and Gopal as children. An orphan being brought up by the munshi of a rich man, Sundar is obsessed with Radha, who shows no sign of being even remotely friendly to him. [Perhaps the fact that he’s quarrelsome, has anger issues and seems only to care about what he wants has something to do with it.] Not so Gopal, for whom what Sundar wants is sacrosanct.

Now grown up, Sundar (Raj Kapoor) has chucked up a job in the Air Force to teach flying at a local club; Gopal (Rajendra Kumar) is in London, studying law, and Radha (Vyjayanthimala), beautiful and educated – is very much in love with Gopal.

Sundar’s obsession with Radha continues, as he chases her down in a plane or steals her clothes while she’s swimming, with just one question – Bol Radha bol, sangam hoga ke nahiin? She points out that he’s had his answer several times over but it’s been a ‘No’ all the time, he says; he’s going to keep asking until she says ‘Yes’. [So, basically, however much things have changed, they still remain the same.]

When Gopal returns, Radha decides that she will tell him how she feels. 

Only, every time she tries to do so, either Sundar or circumstances interfere. To the point where, when she writes a letter to Gopal confessing her love, it falls into Sundar’s hands. As always, Sundar hurries off to Gopal asking him to read the letter. Being self-obsessed to the core, he assumes the letter is meant for him. [I’m wondering why people in Hindi films don’t address their letters to the person they are writing to, instead of using random terms of endearment?] And this is when Gopal discovers that Sundar is deeply in love with Radha.

Radha is rightly furious – they are not children anymore, and besides, she has never been in love with Sundar. But Gopal, full of brotherly love, cannot dream of breaking Sundar’s heart. [Seems quite okay with breaking Radha’s.] Even though he knows that Radha is in love with him, that his mother and her parents are looking forward to their marriage, he goes to Radha’s parents with a marriage proposal – for Sundar. Thankfully, Radha’s father shoots it down at once, even telling Gopal that they approve of him as a husband for their daughter.

Sundar, heartbroken but determined to earn their approval, returns to his job in the air force. It is war time, and Sundar is stationed at the front. While leaving, he begs Gopal to take care of Radha – “Make sure no man comes in between us,” he pleads. Radha is shocked – “I’m not in love with you, Sundar,” she screams, but Sundar doesn’t hear her over the noise of the plane. [He hasn’t listened to her the many times she said this before, so what made her think he would listen now, even if he heard her?]

As the war continues, Sundar volunteers for a suicide mission. 

As their plane is shot down by the enemy, Sundar, as the senior-most officer on board, insists that his crew bail, and takes the time to drop the supplies to his trapped colleagues. Alas, he’s missing, presumed dead, and awarded a posthumous medal for his bravery.

Two years pass, and while Gopal’s mother hasn’t given up hope that he’s not actually dead, Radha takes the first move towards taking control of her own life, asking Gopal if he doesn’t love her too. Freed from his promise to his dead friend, Gopal confesses his own feelings.

And then… Sundar returns.

Originally titled Gharaonda, and set to star Dilip Kumar, Nargis and Raj Kapoor as the three leads, Sangam is a messy but human tale of love, hurt ego and [misplaced] sacrifice. Raj Kapoor’s relationships were always untidy. Right from Aag, his debut film, he did not shy away from showing the messy side of obsession. In Sangam, too, Sundar is not heroic. His stalking, his obsession, his anger and jealousy are not glamourised.

Sundar’s obsessive love for Radha blinds him to her heartbreak and to Gopal’s sacrifice. His open-hearted good nature forces Gopal to bend to his desire, and makes Radha collateral damage.

Sundar’s love turns into jealous rage when confronted with the truth that his wife had loved another man. He cannot accept her answer, nor can he understand that she’s but human – Ye dharti hai insaano.n kii, kuch aur nahiin insaan hai hum. His jealousy degrades him – and nowhere is it more evident than in the scene where Sundar furtively picks up the pieces of the love letter that his wife had torn up in aching despair. 

He loves Radha, yes, but it is a very selfish love.

Gopal’s inability to stand up for his love, or indeed, to his friend, traps him in a prison of his own making. He's fighting for his principles, but cannot see how warped they are. Not even Radha’s despair can move him to rebel against Sunder’s emotional stranglehold on their lives.

Radha, who knows exactly what she wants, doesn't have a voice in her own marriage when Gopal refuses to marry her, her parents fix her marriage with Sundar, whose war record now makes him acceptable. Radha moves from one man to the other, trying – like many women before and after her – to make the best of her life.

In a bid to put her past behind her, she even tells Gopal not to visit them. 

Yet, for Sundar, that’s not enough. 

When Radha refuses to divulge the name of her lover, Sundar spirals into a vortex of hurt, jealousy and rage that spills out in the form of taunts directed at his wife. At one point, unable to take it anymore, the self-respecting Radha decides to leave. And an agonised Sundar pleads, “Mat jao, Radha.” There is both pain and understanding in Radha’s eyes as she tells him quietly, “Mujh se tumhaara dukh bardasht nahiin hota.”

The love is still there. It just isn’t enough.

Indeed, it is Radha who struggles to get the men in her life to understand her – yet Gopal whom she loves and who loves her, will not let her tell Sundar the truth.

Neither will Sundar first accept that she doesn’t love him, nor will he now accept that her love affair, if it could be called that, was before she was married to him.

If Kapoor was annoying as hell in the ‘stalk-her-until-she-says-yes’ avatar in the first quarter of the film, he’s brilliant, if unsympathetic, in the role of a man beset by his own demons. There’s a brittleness to his performance that suggests the twisted suffering he is going through, and that he inflicts on the wife he loves above all else.

"Pyaar aur sachhaii", he tells Radha, when she asks him what he sees in her eyes. But when he sees her, he can only think of the man who may have touched her before he did; it’s not her fault that his demons take over.

Audience sympathy is directed towards Gopal’s silent suffering, both as a man who sacrifices his love and as one who is privy to her suffering. Gopal has the means to clear Radha’s reputation, but his deliberate silence before Radha’s marriage now constrains him, making him both a victim as well as complicit in her suffering.

In the end, though, "Aaj tak mujhe sach kehne ki shakti nahiin thi," he confesses. When Sundar learns the truth, his hurt bursts through the anger. "Phir wohi qurbani!" He had spent a lifetime being the recipient of Gopal's benevolence. When Gopal demurs that he sacrificed his love because Sundar is his friend, "Dost tha!" Sundar retorts. "Magar tum ne samjha nahin. Samjhte to phir aaj ye to na hota jo hua." If Gopal had only spoken... "Agar ek baar mujhse kaha hota." If only... 

In one masterstroke, he demolishes the idea of friendship that demands – and makes – such sacrifice. But Rajendra Kumar’s performance was quiet, controlled and effective. One can sympathise with his feelings, even if we cannot understand his actions.

However, Sangam belonged to Vyjayanthimala who sparkles in a role that gave her a range of emotions to portray. Radha is the strongest of the three characters, the most consistent, the most vulnerable. The deep betrayal in her eyes when she realises that Gopal had been writing love letters to Sundar in her name; 

...the anger at his willingness to sacrifice her, her life, her happiness; the increasing helplessness as she endeavours to answer Sundar's jealous taunts without compromising Gopal; the fury when she realises that once again the men are deciding her future: "Nahin ho sakta," she screams. "Main tumse poochti hoon, aur tumse - tumse, jisne mujhse pyaar kiya, aur tumse jisne mujhe byaah kiya - tumhein kis ne haq diya ki aaj phir tum donon mil kar meri zindagi ka faisla karo? 

Through Radha, Kapoor gives voice to a woman's feelings she's not meant to be bartered on a man's whim. "Wah!" says Radha, "Kabhi ek dost mujhe bali chadatha hai, kabhi doosre dost." 
Vyjayanthimala turns in a deeply sensitive, mature and layered performance as Radha, bringing the happiness and the grief, the anger and the frustration of a woman trapped by the actions of others.  And through their stories, Kapoor makes a plea for relationships to be based on love - "Sangam to woh hai Radha, jahan dil dil se milta hai. Aatma aatma se mil ke param aatma ho jaata hai.” 
I came away impressed by the maturity of the script (Inder Raj Anand wrote it in 1948-9) and the directorial vision that shaped it as well as the performances. Sangam's relationships may be messy, but the emotional layers make you feel for the three characters and keep you invested in their stories.


  • Raj Kapoor’s meticulous attention to detail can be seen here as well, from the Canberra he flies as a bomber pilot and the Dakotas used as supply planes, a throwaway scene explaining why a bomber pilot would be delivering supplies, and another line of dialogue which explains how he can now read Hindi.
  • One can’t speak about Sangam without mentioning the songs. As in all of Kapoor’s films, the songs were a part of the narrative. Ye mera prem patra padhkar was originally a love letter written by a lovelorn Hasrat Jaipuri to a girl he was too shy to speak to.
  • When Vyjayanthimala had not responded to Raj Kapoor’s offer of the film, Kapoor sent her a telegram asking, ‘Bol Radha, bol Sangam hoga ke nahiin?” Her reply was – “Hoga, hoga, zaroor hoga.” These lines inspired Shailendra to pen Bol Radha bol sangam hoga ke nahiin.
  • Kapoor’s films inevitably had one character named ‘Gopal’. The real-life Gopal was Raj Kapoor’s driver of many years, so dear to Kapoor that he considered him family.
  • Sangam, clocking nearly 4 hours, originally opened with two intervals, a feat that Kapoor repeated with his magnum opus, Mera Naam Joker.

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